MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

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Nov. 26 2010 7:21 AM

MFA vs. NYC

America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?

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Two years spent in an MFA program, in other words, constitute a tiny and often ineffectual part of the American writer's lifelong engagement with the university. And yet critics continue to bemoan the mechanizing effects of the programs, and to draw links between a writer's degree-holding status and her degree of aesthetic freedom. Get out of the schools and live! they urge, forgetting on the one hand how much of contemporary life is lived in the shadow of the university, even if beyond its walls; and on the other hand how much free living an adult can do while attending two classes per week. It's time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer's educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.

There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 854! This explosion has created a huge source of financial support for working writers, not just in the form of lecture fees, adjunctships, and temporary appointments—though these abound—but honest-to-goodness jobs: decently paid, relatively secure compared to other industries, and often even tenured. It would be fascinating to know the numbers—what percentage of the total income of American fiction writers comes from the university, and what percentage from publishing contracts—but it's safe to say that the university now rivals, if it hasn't surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world. This situation—of two complementary economic systems of roughly matched strength—is a new one for American fiction. As the mass readership of literary fiction has peaked and subsided, and the march of technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety, if not its much-advertised death throes, the MFA program has picked up the financial slack and then some, offering steady payment to more fiction writers than, perhaps, have ever been paid before.

Everyone knows this. But what's remarked rarely if at all is the way that this balance has created, in effect, two literary cultures (or, more precisely, two literary fiction cultures) in the United States: one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, Calif., to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla. (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street). The superficial differences between these two cultures can be summed up charticle-style: short stories vs. novels; Amy Hempel vs. Jonathan Franzen; library copies vs. galley copies; Poets & Writers vs. the New York  Observer; Wonder Boys vs. The Devil Wears Prada; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference vs. the Frankfurt Book Fair; departmental parties vs. publishing parties; literary readings vs. publishing parties; staying home vs. publishing parties. But the differences also run deep. Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.

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Of course the two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways, some of them significant. The NYC writer most probably earned an MFA; the MFA writer, meanwhile, may well publish her books at a New York house. There are even MFA programs in New York, lots of them, though these generally partake of the NYC culture. And many writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds, whether over the course of a career or within a single year. A writer like Deborah Eisenberg, who spends half the year in New York and half at the University of Virginia; whose early stories were published to acclaim in the New Yorker but who subsequently became known (or unknown) as a "writer's writer"—that is, a workshop leader's writer; whose fiction, oddly, never appears anymore in New York-based magazines but who writes frequently for the New York Review of Books and publishes new books to raves from a variety of New York organs shows in how many ways a writer can slip between these two cultures before winding up perfectly poised between them. And yet what's so striking is how distinct the cultures do, in fact, feel and how distinctly they at least pretend to function. On the level of individual experience, each can feel hermetic, and the traveler from one to the other finds herself in an alien land. The fact that it's possible to travel without a passport, or to be granted dual citizenship, makes them no less distinct.

The model for the MFA fiction writer is her program counterpart, the poet. Poets have long been professionally bound to academia; decades before the blanketing of the country with MFA programs requiring professors, the poets took to the grad schools, earning Ph.D.s in English and other literary disciplines to finance their real vocation. Thus came of age the concept of the poet-teacher. The poet earns money as a teacher; and, at a higher level of professional accomplishment, from grants and prizes; and, at an even higher level, from appearance fees at other colleges. She does not, as a rule, earn money by publishing books of poems—it has become almost inconceivable that anyone outside a university library will read them. The consequences of this economic arrangement for the quality of American poetry have been often bemoaned (poems are insular, arcane, gratuitously allusive, etc.), if poorly understood. Of more interest here is the economic arrangement proper, and the ways in which it has become that of a large number of fiction writers as well.

As the fiction writer-teacher becomes the norm, the fiction MFA also becomes an odd hybrid. On the one hand, MFA programs are still studio-based: luxuries of time during which both serious and dilettantish people can develop their artistic skills outside the demands of the market. In this way, the programs aspire to a kind of immanent (and convenient) ideal; it doesn't matter whether the student publishes now or in 10 years or never, whether her degree ever earns her a penny, as long as she serves her muse. On the other hand, as available teaching jobs multiply, MFA programs become increasingly preprofessional. They provide, after all, a terminal degree in a burgeoning field. And (the ambitious student rightly asks) why not enter that field straightaway? After all, there are actual jobs available for MFA holders, while the other humanities stagnate and overall unemployment hovers around 10 percent.

Thus the fiction writer's MFA increasingly resembles the poet's old Ph.D.; not in the rigors of the degree itself—getting an MFA is so easy—but in the way it immerses the writer in a professional academic network. She lives in a college town, and when she turns her gaze forward and outward, toward the future and the literary world at large, she sees not, primarily, the New York cluster of editors and agents and publishers but, rather, a matrix of hundreds of colleges with MFA programs, potential employers all, linked together by Poets & Writers, AWP, and summertime workshops at picturesque make-out camps like Sewanee and Bread Loaf. More links, more connections, are provided by the attractive, unread, university-funded literary quarterlies that are swapped between these places and by the endowments and discretionary funds that deliver an established writer-teacher from her home program to a different one, for a well-paid night or week, with everybody's drinks expensed: This system of circulating patronage may have some pedagogical value but exists chiefly to supplement the income of the writer-teacher and, perhaps more important, to impress on the students the more glamorous side of becoming—of aspiring to become—a writer-teacher.

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